Tag Archives: book reviews

And the Ocean Was Our Sky

Surreal illustrated retelling of “Moby Dick”

I forgot to mention in my previous review that another major reason for me finally reading “Moby Dick” is that a friend of mine had lent me a copy of this book. I’ve read several of Patrick Ness‘ books before and I was very much looking forward to this one, but it didn’t seem right to try to read it before reading the story it is inspired by. Luckily for me, this one is much shorter.

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“And the Ocean Was Our Sky” by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Rovina Cai is an illustrated young adult novel that reimagines the classic novel “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville as told from the perspective of a whale. Narrated by a whale who styles herself as Bathsheba, the reader is set adrift in an alternative underwater world where whales have developed technology, have reclaimed the depths of the sea and have themselves become hunters. Third Apprentice in a female-only pod under the command of Captain Alexandra, Bathsheba joins the hunt for the terrifying and monstrous Toby Wick. However, when they find a human man abandoned by his crew and Bathsheba is charged with torturing him for information, her perspective on humans and the ethics of the hunt is forever changed.

This book has haunted me since I read it late last year. Ness is a beautiful writer, and he has created a strange and unsettling world for his whales to live in that are realised with Cai’s sublime illustrations. The whales live in exile, only breaching on the rarest occasions and instead relying on breather bubbles that allow them to swim almost forever underwater. Except, to the whales, they are no longer ‘under’. To them, the ocean is their sky and the air below where the men and their ships live is the Abyss. However, the whales’ world is not an easy one to live in. The pods drag around sunken ships, and their cities are built on precipices. They see themselves as hunters but really they are banished, calling themselves hunters but in reality they are just as hunted.

Toby Wick was probably the element that disturbed me the most. Ness never quite gives enough information to the reader about what exactly Toby Wick is. Going much further than Melville’s white whale, the horror of Toby Wick is in the unknown. Is he a monstrous man, is he a machine, is he some awful hybrid of both? We are never truly certain. Throughout the book, hands are a prominent motif representing the ingenuity and dexterity of, and the terror inspired by, humans.

This is a dark and at times unnerving book that does not provide the reader with many answers, but leaves them instead with a lot of questions. A very original take on a classic story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Horror, Young Adult

Moby Dick

Classic adventure novel, micro-history of whaling, gay love story

Content warning: mental illness, racism, animal cruelty

My very good friend Annie bought me this stunning edition as a gift probably close to two years ago. A deep blue hardcover with the most incredible silver foil embellishments, the front has an iconic and stylised whale’s tail, and the back has a ship sailing beneath a silver full moon. And the pages. The pages. Tinted edges so silver that they are reflective. This is an incredibly beautiful book, but this novel intimidated me for some time. Firstly, because it is long: over 600 pages of nautical text. Secondly, because I still feel guilty for losing a copy of this book when I borrowed it from the library as a teen many years ago. However, it had been glinting on my bookshelf long enough. Maybe encouraged by the similarly beautiful “Saga Land“, I decided it was finally time.

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This is likely going to be somewhat controversial, but I’m just going to go for it. “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville is three books in one.

Firstly, it is an adventure story about a man styling himself as Ishmael who, after starting to feel depressed, decides to mix things up and join a whale hunt. Having previously sailed on merchant ships, his experience is enough to get him signed up but not enough to achieve any particular responsibilities. Aboard the Pequod, Ishmael finally catches a glimpse of the dark and mysterious Captain Ahab, and soon learns of his obsession with seeking revenge against the white whale known as Moby Dick who bit off his leg on a previous voyage. As the journey continues, the narrative flicks between Ishmael and Ahab, and Ahab’s fixation on hunting Moby Dick leads him to take more and more risks.

Secondly, it is a micro-history about the whaling industry. Interspersed throughout the novel, Melville (ostensibly through the voice of Ishmael) provides the reader with detailed explanations of the particulars of whaling, how it’s done and what the materials obtained from whaling are used for. These rather clinical descriptions are contrasted against Ishmael’s observations of whaling generally, showing the reader the extent of  the profit, cruelty and waste that stems from whaling. Melville goes into minute detail about the types of ropes and weapons used, how the whales are dissected for parts and what happens to their bodies after they are discarded.

Thirdly, this book is a queer interracial love story between Ishmael and a man called Queequeg from a fictional Pacific island nation. Ishmael and Queequeg meet when they are given the same bed in the same room at an inn to share by the inn-keeper. Quickly developing rapport, they agree to pool their resources and to travel together henceforth. If you think that reading this story as queer romance is an unreasonable interpretation of such a masculine adventure story, then I present to you the following:

This being told to Queequeg, he at once complied [with putting his tomahawk away and ceasing to smoke in bed], and again politely motioned me to get into bed – rolling over to one side as much as to say – I wont touch a leg of ye. “Good night landlord,” said I, “you may go.” I turned in, and never slept better in my life.

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.

Considering how sociably we had been sleeping together the night previous, and especially considering the affectionate arm I had found thrown over me upon waking in the morning, I thought this indifference of his very strange.

…but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he look please, perhaps a little complimented.

He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and as unbidden as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married…

After supper, and another social chat and smoke, we went to our room together. He…took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine.

Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times until nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.

We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine…

He at once resolved to accompany to that island, ship aboard the same vessel, get into the same watch, the same boat, the same mess with me, in short to share my every hap; with both my hands in his, boldly dip into the Potluck of both worlds.

On the occasion in question, Queequeg figured in the Highland costume – a skirt and socks – in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage; and no one had a better chance to observe him, as will presently be seen.

I rest my case.

Anyway, on to the review. This book almost defies reviews. It is both very funny (the preacher climbing a pulpit made of whale ribs pulling up the ladder behind him) and very boring. It is full of interesting facts, dull facts and erroneous facts (Melville decides that despite being warm-blooded and lactating with a horizontal tail, whales are a type of fish). It is both very progressive (Queequeg is given a higher wage than Ishmael due to his skills and experience), and racist (Queequeg is frequently referred to as a savage), with a range of characters of different races, some more likable and stereotyped than others.

The eponymous character Moby Dick barely features in the novel at all. Melville switches from soliloquy to omniscient third person to theatrical dialogue without any care whatsoever for consistency. Ishmael is both mysterious and dramatic, hinting at experiencing bouts of manic and depressive episodes, high education and low income, a possibly teaching background and, later, and telling his tales to a bevy of handsome young men in Italy.

I probably enjoyed Ahab’s chapters the least, because they were mostly of him muttering under his breath beneath the moonlight, weighing up between hunting Moby Dick and REALLY hunting Moby Dick while chief mate Starbuck looks on grimly. The whale hunts themselves were both fascinating and awful, the whales suffering incredibly while Ishmael provides technical commentary on exactly the way they die. The other characters were a motley bunch with second mate Stubb a firm favourite, especially while pushing the sailors on in the whaleboats with equal parts insult and encouragement in a very amusing tone.

How do you review a book like this? It’s excellent and terrible in almost equal measures. This is a book full of contradictions that, nearly 170 years after publication, still gives readers a lot to think about and plenty to discuss.

 

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Filed under Pretty Books, Book Reviews, Tinted Edges, Classics

Opioid, Indiana

Novel about disadvantage and coming of age

Content warning: drugs, mental illness, suicide

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr is a novel about 17 year old Riggle who ends up living with his uncle in a rural Indiana town in Trump’s America after his parents have died. When Riggle is accused of having a marijuana vape pen, he is suspended from school for 5 days. Careful to conserve his mobile phone data and avoid his uncle’s wrath, Riggle tries to think of what to do for the week. However, when his uncle’s girlfriend tells him that his uncle is missing, he realises that if they can’t come up with the $800 rent that’s due, they’re going to have nowhere to live. So starts 5 days of Riggle looking for his uncle, finding work, meeting locals and chatting with Remote, a shadow puppet his mother introduced him to who explained how the days of the week got their name.

This is an engrossing book that explores a number of issues that continue to impact disadvantaged rural areas under the leadership of President Donald Trump. Poverty, drug addiction, grief, depression, suicide, lack of job opportunity, lack of housing security, mental illness, gun violence, school shootings and Confederate flags all take their toll on Riggle. However, I found him to be a really warm and interesting character despite the significant amount of hardship he had endured, not least of which was losing both his parents.

Very few books about orphans deal with the trauma of parents dying in a meaningful way, and I felt that Carr’s use of Remote as both a comforting remnant of childhood as well as a lens through which Riggle sees the world as inspired. Other things that his mother taught him, such as making an omelette, end up opening doors for Riggle that he didn’t even know were there. I also thought that Carr introduced an intriguing bit of unreliability into Riggle’s story when he begins to notice people making a particular shape with their hands that looks like Remote, suggesting that Riggle is unconsciously seeking meaning in a world that makes no sense.

There are a lot of themes woven through this book, and one that I think I would have like a little more developed is Riggle’s friendship with Bennet. Bennet, an easygoing biracial character with a loving yet strict mother, draws out an sense of intimacy from Riggle. However, given how important friendships are during times of difficulty, and given the distance from Riggle’s only other friend, I think I would have liked to have seen this friendship developed a little more.

A well-constructed and unique novel, I’m surprised it hasn’t received more acclaim.

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The Blue Rose

Historical fiction about botany and the French Revolution

Quite some time ago, when I was doing the ACT Literary Bloggers of the Future program (now renamed New Territory), I went along to see Kate Forsyth speak at the National Library of Australia. Afterwards, as I wrote in my blog post, Forsyth kindly did some book signings and when I showed her my name on a scrap of paper, she liked it enough that she wrote it down. She said that she was working on a book about a Welsh gardner, who perhaps might have a sister. She asked me what I liked, and I hurriedly said books and bunnies, and I left fervently hoping that this time I might have a character named after me. She did not disappoint.

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“The Blue Rose” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel about Viviane, the daughter of a Marquis who lives in a chateau in Brittany, France. Viviane grows up isolated, with no friends but the servants she is told not to socialise with, while her father lives at the court of Louis XVI. That is, until her father hires a gardener from Wales called David to rebuild the chateau’s gardens. David and Viviane immediately connect, but when Viviane’s father returns, David is chased away and Viviane believes he is gone forever. She is soon married off and sent to be a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, but with unrest increasing in Paris, Viviane’s survival is far from guaranteed.

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I saw Forsyth speak again at Harry Hartog last year, and it was fascinating to listen to her discuss how research into her family’s history and a lifelong love of roses led her to research the first scarlet rose imported into France at the beginning of the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, this line of inquiry led to a well-researched novel that covers a very well documented time in French history, but from a lesser-known perspective. Although Viviane is part of the French nobility, instead of great loss the Revolution ultimately brings freedom from the absolute patriarchy she lives under. For all her naiveté, she is sweet, resourceful and believable. Meanwhile David, a self-made man from a humble background, must learn temperance and patience if he is going to find success.

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Pulling back the curtain for a second, these are the conditions in Canberra right now

Although a medium size novel, it is one of significant geographic scale. Forsyth takes the reader from rural to urban France, and then from France to China – the home of the ancestor to most of today’s roses. Forsyth is also well-known for her fairy tales and fantasy, and draws upon a story about an impossible rose as a loose framework as well as a parable told within the novel. While David’s time in China is brief, Forsyth’s own travels and studies into the ill-fated British trading trip give fascinating insight into how diplomatic encounters unfolded in the 1700s.

This is a very ambitious book that covers a lot of ground during a tumultuous period of history, and at times I felt that the romance aspect of the novel got a little lost.  Viviane and David are in fact separated for the majority of the book. While it does feel like it is mostly Viviane’s story anyway, and I understand the narrative significance of David going off to seek his fortune while Viviane’s is all but taken from her, there wasn’t a lot of space left for relationship development. It is a complex and sophisticated book that I felt needed a tiny bit more of a central theme to tie everything together.

An important piece of historical fiction that brings together two key pieces of history. Having a character named after me was just a bonus.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

McSexy

Racy romance set in Ghana

Content warning: sexual themes

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

“McSexy” by Sianah Nalika DeShield is a romance novel set in Ghana about playboy millionaire Mike Frimpong and PhD candidate and children’s book author Lily Annah. Although Mike has everything, all the important people in his life keep nagging him to settle down, marry and have children. With his masculinity called into question, Mike accepts a bet that he will have a baby before the year is out. After making the bet, he meets the beautiful, intellectual Lily and sparks fly immediately. However, Lily’s family is experiencing serious financial problems and she secretly applies to an advertisement for a very unconventional job.

This is a fun, light-hearted novel full of drama and with an outrageous premise. DeShield is fearless when it comes to pushing her characters to extremes for comedic effect. However, even though it certainly had a much different tone, this book reminds me a little of “Letting Go” where the success of the characters is a given, but their ability to form and maintain relationships is the area in which they struggle. I particularly liked Lily because even though she has academic and writing success, she doesn’t yet have financial success, which created some interesting class tensions in the book.

However, I think it needs to be clear that this is not a serious book and both Mike and Lily are ultimate Mary Sues and in particular, Mike’s sexual prowess and financial acumen beggars belief at some points. Although an enthusiastic writer, DeShield does a fair bit of telling rather than showing and there were points where felt she could have dialed the description back a little and relied a bit more on suggestion, such as during the sex scenes.

A fun and entertaining story, that is a refreshing take on the romance genre.

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Saga Land

Co-authored non-fiction novel about Icelandic cultural identity

I got this beautiful book from last year’s Jólabókaflóð and I have been waiting for the perfect time to read it. When is a better time than visiting Iceland? The cover is stunning with silver detailing on a turquoise cover, and despite the fact that it was pretty heavy, I absolutely did not regret lugging it with me around Scandinavia so I could enjoy it on location.

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Photo taken at the Blue Lagoon

“Saga Land” by Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason is a non-fiction book that combines a number of forms of storytelling: retellings of some of the great Icelandic sagas, the history of one of Iceland’s most revered authors, the history of Iceland generally, Gíslason’s own experience growing up in Iceland and Fidler and Gíslason’s journey together through the indescribable landscapes of this starkly beautiful country.

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If ever there was a book to read while travelling through Iceland, this is it. I had such a fantastic time wandering the streets of Reykjavik, drinking coffee and beer in cafes and seeing the incredible scenery and history for myself. I was thrilled when I read about the Laundromat Cafe which I stopped in myself.

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We actually had an incredible tour guide doing the Golden Circle tour, a former physics teacher who had a deep wealth of knowledge about the geological features of the landscape. However, this book really augmented my experience by teaching me much more about the history and culture of this country, especially the literary history. The stop at Þingvellir National Park was particularly incredible because if I had just read the book, I don’t think I could have appreciated how overwhelming the place in between two tectonic plates is in person, and had I just visited without the book, I don’t think I would have appreciated the cultural significance of the former home of the world’s oldest surviving parliament.

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I absolutely loved Gíslason’s recollections of Reykjavik as a young boy, and his observations about how it had changed over the years. Reading about Gíslason’s interactions with Icelandic people constantly asking him when he is coming back to live were utterly heartwarming. I can completely understand how being born in Iceland would tie you there forever.

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I can see why this book was co-authored. Fidler brings a sharpness, a discerning perspective to the book that critically examines Iceland’s history through objective eyes. However, Gíslason is such a beautiful writer in his own right, I would have been satisfied with a book that was just his story and his Iceland alone. I think the nature of the book means that there is a lot of time spent peeking behind the curtain, and while I can see the value in Fidler and Gíslason’s observations of each other, I think there were times where I wished the magic had been preserved a little more.

A fantastic book that is perfectly suited to anyone visiting Iceland. I learned so much reading this book, and it added such a layer of cultural understanding during my trip.

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The Devil’s Apprentice

Young adult novel about a good boy accidentally going to hell

Content warning: religion, suicide

Note: I have made some edits to this review following a conversation with the author

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. As it turned out, the author is Danish and I managed to read this while I was travelling in Denmark.

“The Devil’s Apprentice” by Kenneth B. Andersen and translated by K. E. Semmel is a young adult novel about a young teen called Philip who is bullied relentlessly by a classmate. Despite being thoughtful and kind, after a terrible accident, Philip finds himself in hell by mistake. It quickly appears that the Devil is ailing, and while trying to secure the perfect heir for the future of Hell, he ends up with the angelic Philip instead. However, despite Philip’s naivete and strong moral compass, he finds Hell is beginning to grow on him.

This is a book with an interesting question: can innately good kid can learn to be bad? Andersen creates a hell with two castes: demons who live and work there, and human souls who are there to be punished. Philip primarily engages with the demons of Hell, befriending them while they encourage him in his studies to become evil. I like that although Philip seemed to struggle socially on Earth, he managed to befriend a lot of people in Hell. Andersen spends a lot of time exploring friendship, and exploring what it means to be good and evil.

Now, compared to a similar book I read previously where Hell is a hotter, more crowded and more bureaucratic version of Earth where you still have to go to work and pay bills, this book’s version of Hell is more inspired by traditional Christian beliefs, and Philip regularly passes non-demon residents of Hell, known as the condemned, who are trapped in eternal torment of varying types depending on their particular sins.

One thing that was pretty confronting to me was several references to people who had committed suicide being subjected to eternal torment for “taking the easy way out”. Since discussing this issue with the author, he has clarified to me that the intention was only meant to refer to people seeking to escape the ramifications of crimes against humanity on earth. However, this is not entirely clear in the English translation, so I would recommend bearing that in mind while reading.

An interesting exploration of good and evil with universal messages about friendship, bullying, acceptance and agency.

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, are feeling overwhelmed or have lost someone to suicide, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14) if you are in Australia, or your local crisis service if you are in another country. 

If you wish to learn about suicide intervention, I would strongly recommend the LivingWorks ASIST course (https://www.lifeline.org.au/get-help/topics/preventing-suicide) and Mental Health First Aid training.  

 

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